Don't Even Go There—Travel Writing for the Rest of Us

Even if the world is your oyster, you can still chip a tooth on its shell. While travel magazines feature exotic locales of breathtaking beauty, we expose sites so depressing that no traveler this side of Edgar Allan Poe would venture there without a tub-load of tranquilizers. Take Las Vegas (please) and the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet line at Sam’s Town. That's the world we explore at Don’t Even Go There.

On this site, we tell of places we’ve visited but wish we hadn’t. We reveal vacation plans gone awry and relate horror stories from the road best abandoned. These true stories reflect where we’ve chosen to go. We only have ourselves to blame. We rarely needed to exaggerate—the truth really is stranger than a Dan Brown novel.

Don’t Even Go There: travel tips for those of us who aren’t escorted by security guards, pampered by wealthy benefactors, or provided a generous per diem. This blog is for seasoned travelers and armchair tourists who want the real world first-hand and head-on, with all its drama, horror, and humor. You’ll laugh at us, cry with us, and decide to stay home more often.

13 December 2008

Quote of the Month

As we’ve shown in the past, not all these quotes have to be our own. If we hear something that strikes us as Don’t Even Go There worthy, we’re not too proud to steal (er, we mean borrow) it. The following quote came to us without an attribute, although we wish we knew who said it so we could thank him. If you know who said, contact us before his lawyer does.

“Why is it that the closer you get to the ocean, the more seafood costs?”

–anonymous (2008)

07 December 2008

Closed for the Season

We return once again to the region surrounding our current hometown: Asheville, North Carolina. While there’s a lot to love about this place, you have to watch out for the rednecks and tourist traps. Then there’s the hazard involved in this story. We discovered it first-hand, but you have us to thank for warning you in advance. Thank us by leaving a comment. —MB & JS
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The Blue Ridge Mountains extend from western Virginia through parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Mention the area, and a Midwesterner might tell you about Appalachia, where furniture is still made by hand, indoor plumbing is still a luxury, and Deliverance-style families still interbreed. Actually, only one of those is still true.

These days, the area has become a scenic destination, a hot spot for young and old alike. What attraction could draw such a diverse group? It’s not a theme park or a music festival (although you can find those too), but a road that winds through the mountains: the Blue Ridge Parkway. Built in the 1930s as a make-work project, it begins near Waynesboro, Virginia, just south of the Shenandoah National Park. From there, it runs southwesterly into western North Carolina, all the way to the Cherokee Indian Reservation that borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Along the way, it skirts only two major towns: Roanoke, Virginia, and Asheville, North Carolina. Otherwise, it winds its way through the mountains unimpeded by commercial vehicles, billboards, stop lights, and straight lines. A bare-bones operation, even the safety precautions are optional. For example, despite the precarious turns and dangerous drop-offs, the road has few guardrails. One wrong turn, and you become part of the scenery, permanently.

What the Parkway has plenty of is grandeur. You can find waterfalls, picnic areas, mountain peaks, and hiking trails. The Parkway draws motorists like a late-night drive-through window, except instead of counting your change for a quick snack, you get all you can eat for free. This national park, the narrowest in the country, has no entrance fee or stamped tickets. It also has no gas stations and few motels. A woman we know (whose name we cannot divulge unless we want trouble) said that a drive on the Parkway is her idea of “roughing it.”

The winding, two-lane byway—with its scenic vistas and mountainous topography—affords beautiful views all year round. Foliage season alone accounts for thousands of visitors every day. Most people drive the Parkway conservatively: if you’ve ever been stuck behind an overloaded land yacht doing half the speed limit, you know what we’re talking about. On a motorcycle, however, this is one of the all-time great rides, 469 miles of pure joy.

To the north or south? Both are equally gorgeous and hazardous.

Despite the growing attraction, significant sections of the Parkway close intermittently. Just the threat of aberrant weather can be enough to shut it down. Too rainy? Too windy? Too snowy? Too sunny? It’s impossible to predict when or where it’ll close. January or June, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Do they close the road for maintenance issues? It’s not the government’s fault, it’s the asphalt. Repairing potholes is something the government actually does well, and the Parkway is, for the most part, immaculate. Do they close the road for safety concerns? More people have died hiking the nearby trails than driving the Parkway, even though it’s an unlit road, flanked by trees and cliffs. Death might lurk on every turn, but He seldom claims a soul. Maybe, like the rest of us, He’s distracted by the views.

We can’t identify a single valid reason why a major tourist attraction like the Parkway should ever close. Motorists go out of their way to get there—the road is rarely accessible from major highways—yet America’s Favorite Drive isn’t always open. This is no way to run a tourist attraction, let alone a country. The National Park Service, responsible for maintaining the road, claims they get funding each and every year the military doesn’t need the money.

All we’re saying is that there have been deaths at Disneyland, but that tourist truck stop doesn’t close its doors every time it rains. Why don’t they just post warning signs like the ones they put in fog areas: “Warning: If your windshield is icy, imagine how slick the road must be.” We vote for keeping the Parkway open. Year-round, like Disneyland.

Lessons Learned: If you’re unfortunate enough to find a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway closed, take our advice: park the car and walk around. You’ll feel like an outlaw; you’ll get views closed to all those car-bound yahoos; and the exercise will do you good. Then come back another day. Maybe tomorrow. Who knows? The road might well be open again.

How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 4
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Rent-Attainment: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 5/5
Vibe-Rating: 4

If You Won’t Listen to UsNearest Airport: Roanoke Regional Airport or Asheville Regional Airport
Native Population: No one lives on the Parkway, although Park Rangers prowl its length
Normal Attractions: Mountain peaks, waterfalls, flora and fauna, the slow pace of life in the hills.
Final Point of Interest: Even though construction on the Parkway began in 1935, it wasn’t finished until 1987 with the Linn Cove Viaduct (a worthwhile sight by itself).

02 December 2008

Haighted It

As long as we’re skewering once popular destinations, let’s continue with the following story. At one time, we dreamed of going to this place—to pay our respects, to relive a past we never knew, and to just see it with our own eyes. To say we were disappointed is an understatement, as you’ll read for yourself. —MB & JS
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For veterans and fans of the 1960s’ counterculture or for those who merely want to relive recent history, a visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood would seem like the perfect destination. Not far from the panhandle of Golden Gate Park—which witnessed many of the concerts, protests, and “be-ins” of the decade—the intersection between Haight Street and Ashbury Street survives as the birthplace of the international Hippy Movement, a memorial to the cultural chaos of the 1960s.

The arts flourished here, not only giving the Hippies their collective voice, but also driving the era’s Cultural Revolution to new extremes. Robert Crumb sold his first comics here. The Grateful Dead refined their music here. Janis Joplin drank here (and there and over there). Artists, musicians, writers, and poets all called it home. This was the neighborhood that fostered not only cultural upheaval but cultural folk heroes as well. No one, no matter how Republican, can ignore the impact this little neighborhood has had on the world today.

Visiting Haight-Ashbury to smoke a joint seemed like a rite of passage. We wanted it to be a pilgrimage to the psychedelic Mecca, a middle-finger extension to the straight, corporate mode of conduct. But the neighborhood’s not what it used to be, and our symbolic act of protest almost got us busted.

When we went, not so very long ago, we found that gentrification preceded us. The cheap, dirty houses where the Dead lived in communal bliss have been cleaned up and sold off. The fixer-uppers have been fixed up. All those flop-houses have been not flopped, but flipped for a profit. Lucy in the sky, even with all her diamonds, couldn’t afford the raised rent and had to move out. The entire neighborhood has been transformed.

Sure, we found a couple head shops and a comic book store still in business. They were counting on us, the nostalgic tourist roaming aimlessly in a heady fog, to support them. The rest of the area is now home to upscale boutiques and beauty salons. The neighborhood today is a decent place to live. Even your mother would approve.

The hippy tourists and the homeless hangers-on have become a minority in their own historical neighborhood. Tie-dyed T’s have been replaced by rainbow flags. Dancing bears have been usurped by Teddy bears. Leather bars aren’t just for bikers anymore.

Yes, Haight-Ashbury has turned gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It just didn’t seem to belong there, in the Home of the Hippie. The Jimi Hendrix Electric Church Foundation, which we were lucky enough to see on an earlier visit, survived for a time, but it’s gone now, and the other purple houses in the neighborhood have a much different meaning than they did back in the day.

Yet when we contemplated the change—like all good Haight-Ashbury tourists, over a smoke—we began to realize something important (at least it seemed really important at the time, if you know what we mean). The more the neighborhood has changed, the more it’s stayed the same. Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s helped birth the sexual revolution. Today, a different sexual revolution’s being waged. Back in the ’60s, women burned their bras while men burned their draft cards. Today, a portion of the population is doing a slow burn as they try to gain equal rights. Sound familiar? Maybe the change is more fitting than we initially gave it credit for. Maybe it’s fate. Maybe it’s karma. Maybe gays just make better tenants than hippies.

If you want to make the pilgrimage to Sixties Central, aka Head Headquarters, don’t expect the old neighborhood to be there to greet you. The real estate market waits for no man, and no monument, museum, or movie will ever capture what it was like to be at the Haight in its height of Ashbury prime. History moves on. Maybe it’s time for you to do the same.

Little Known Quote: Former Beatle George Harrison visited the neighborhood in 1967 and was appalled by what he saw. “I went to Haight-Ashbury, expecting it to be this brilliant place, and it was just full of horrible, spotty, dropout kids on drugs. It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn’t . . . all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic. It was like the Bowery, it was like alcoholism, it was like any addiction.”

Lessons Learned: You can’t go back in time. Ignoring reality is like slaying windmills: it only works if you’re half-crazed or half-cocked. Either way, there’s a cell waiting for you if you continue. Accept what is. Enjoy the new ambiance of the neighborhood and its businesses. Break out the credit card and go shopping. Maybe you’ll even find a great new restaurant.
How We Saw It
Blight-Seeing: 1
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 2
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 4
Rent-Attainment: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 2/5
Vibe-Rating: 1

If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: San Francisco International Airport
Native Population: 750,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: Piercing salons, homeless, Victorian architecture, Castro Stret (nearby), and the Golden Gate Park (also nearby).
Final Point of Interest: Haight-Ashbury holds a street fair every year in June.